Today, we hear from Dick Kiernan, Field Ministry Director for Alpha New England. Dick shares his thoughts on a recent video of Pope Francis and its significance for Catholics and Evangelicals
“May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me … “ (John 17:23)
I’m not a gambler, but I bet we all know hundreds of friends of Jesus who are longing for Jesus’ prayer for unity to be answered on this side of heaven. At the end of February, a most extraordinary video of Pope Francis and Kenneth Copeland started going viral. It began when Pope Francis asked his long time Anglican friend, Bishop Tony Palmer, to deliver a video calling for Christian reconciliation to Kenneth Copeland at his annual pastors’ conference in Texas with hundreds of charismatic pastors. Kenneth Copeland reciprocated with prayers and blessings for the pope and said he was “open,” and then he ended by saying that 40 years ago this would have been considered impossible by everyone.
I sent this video link to my Alpha colleagues across the country. Some were in tears or amazed. One simply responded, “breath-taking.” A few other Evangelical friends from my local prayer networks were suspicious. After some discussion I realized that this gesture from Pope Francis and Kenneth Copeland will be misunderstood by some people and it won’t be meaningful if people don’t really live it out. So what is really happening and what is the significance?
Bishop Tony Palmer stated that there are 33,000 Christian denominations and this gesture by Pope Francis is not going to change that. However, the specific challenge that Bishop Palmer gave was for Evangelicals to sign the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification—also known as JDDJ. He explained that Catholics and Lutherans had resolved Martin Luther’s original protest of “salvation by faith alone,” and this joint declaration about salvation means that Catholics and Lutherans have resolved the main dividing point of the Protestant Reformation. In other words, they came to agree that salvation is by grace alone through faith resulting in good works, but the good works don’t save us–we are only saved by the merits of Christ’s crucifixion. What this means is that we agree on salvation—and we agree that there is one Gospel message. This may not be the end of 33,000 denominations, but it officially states that Catholics and Lutherans agree on this main point of division. Bishop Palmer asked the Evangelicals at this conference (and cyberspace too?) to join with Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists in signing this joint declaration. Wow—isn’t that something?!
My friends and I started discussing it. Can you imagine Catholics, Main Line Christians, and Evangelicals signing this joint declaration? Can you imagine them changing their thinking? It would mean that Evangelicals would expect to see fruit in someone’s life as an assurance they have trusted Jesus, not “cheap grace.” It would mean that Catholics would stop thinking they get to heaven if they are “good” or perform so many good works. On another level the signing of a joint declaration should involve some dialogue and relationship and increase mutual respect, ultimately leading to authentic fellowship and unity.
Jesus said, “all will know you are my disciples if you love one another,” (John 13:34). Could we even imagine loving each other even if we don’t agree on everything? Pope Francis had recently said that this unity with other Christians must be based on essential teachings we hold in common, otherwise known as the hierarchy of truths. He also said that given the state of society Christians no longer have the option to remain divided. It seems like he really means this.
My friends also came up with a dream. What if all New England pastors and Christians started signing and living this teaching? What if they came together for 10 Days of Prayer and United Nights of Worship? What if they started reaching out to the needed or started doing Alpha together? The 500th anniversary of Luther’s protest, also known as the Protestant Reformation is coming up in three years in October of 2017. What if all New England were to come together to celebrate the end of the Protestant Reformation and the beginning of a new Reformation? Can you imagine international gatherings at Wittenburg and Rome? If this is what Jesus was praying for in John 17, then why wouldn’t we do this? Let’s live the dream—amen.